Many folks outside the music scene were startled last week when Al Laughlin, longtime keyboard player for the Samples, was arrested in connection with the burglary of a Boulder apartment building. But fans who closely follow the combo weren't surprised. It's been a dirty little secret among Samples aficionados--a secret that's been confirmed to Westword by several reliable sources--that Laughlin has spent a considerable amount of time during the past year in rehab because of his fondness for heroin. His most recent attempt to pry the monkey from his back ended only a few weeks before the bust.

I first was told of Laughlin's situation several months ago, around the same time that various performers began talking to me about what they saw as a disturbing increase in heroin use here. Several clubs were cited as junkie hangouts and possible trafficking centers.

So why didn't I write about these issues at the time they first raised their ugly little heads? Because in the past year, screeching about heroin has become the great cliche of rock-and-roll journalism. Seemingly every columnist in the United States has pontificated about the evils of smack at one time or another. The same old names--Kurt Cobain, Shannon Hoon, Weiland--pop up again and again amid warnings of a veritable epidemic of intravenous drug use. Never mind that statistics show marijuana, the Bud Lite of narcotics, to be the illegal substance that's truly skyrocketing in popularity these days. After all, no one under the age of fifty can get very excited about that. Heroin is quite another thing, though--and if Joe Palooka fears that these nasty rockers are going to inspire his kids to turn themselves into pincushions, he's going to keep reading frenzied warnings about just such a possibility.

You won't find any such rot here. The strongest stimulant I use on a regular basis is Cocoa Pebbles. But my personal bias doesn't mean that I'm going to start preaching against others who don't share my views. The drug laws in this country are ludicrous--if they aren't changed, they're going to utterly destroy the entire criminal-justice system--and I'm damn well not going to contribute to the general hysteria that's preventing them from being amended. Adults should be free to make choices about their lives, even if they're stupid ones. Case closed.

Laughlin's situation, then, should be looked upon as a particularly sad example about how the wrong decisions can have long-lasting repercussions. Laughlin joined the Samples shortly after vocalist Sean Kelly and co-founder Charles Hambleton, who's no longer with the group, moved to Boulder from Vermont, and he's experienced plenty of changes since that time. He lived through all the critical grumbles about how much the Samples' sound resembles that of the Police. He survived a 1988 management deal that threatened to derail the combo. He witnessed the release of the group's 1991 major-label debut on Arista and was a party to the decision to sever ties with the label the following year. He was present during the period when the Samples married W.A.R.? Records and began putting out albums such as No Room and Autopilot. And he added his musical expertise to live shows whose success eventually convinced MCA to put its muscle behind the group. Simply put, Laughlin should be enjoying the fruits of his labors these days, not making headlines for allegedly heisting hundreds of CDs and pawning thousands of dollars' worth of the band's equipment.

According to Samples insiders, things began to unravel for Laughlin late in 1995. The publicity machine that's arisen around the combo has done its best to keep the particulars of this decline secret, but clues about Laughlin's continued struggles haven't been hard to find. For instance, Kelly, drummer Jeep MacNichol and bassist/vocalist Andy Sheldon (the other Samples) appeared at a Red Rocks gig in June sans Laughlin; he was likewise absent from the extended tour that followed. And although Laughlin appears in publicity photographs for Outpost, the Samples' first recording for MCA, he's not mentioned a single time in the copy of the MCA-approved Samples biography. His name is listed at the top of the hype sheet (along with Kelly's, MacNichol's and Sheldon's), but otherwise, he's invisible.

The statement released by the Samples in the wake of Laughlin's jailing used the most general terms conceivable to reveal why: "Al Laughlin has been on hiatus from the band for nine months, since the completion of our current release on MCA Records, Outpost, last November. At the band's instigation, Al had been on leave during that period in an attempt to work out personal issues." The document, signed "Sean, Jeep and Andy," confirms that the Samples plan to continue touring without Laughlin during upcoming jaunts to the Midwest, Northeast and South; it concludes, "We hope that Al is able to work through his personal and legal issues soon and greatly appreciate the support we have received from our friends and fans, in Al's behalf."

Rob Kos, vice president of artist management for Metropolitan Entertainment, the Samples' New York management firm, adds a little context to this communique. "Al's problems are drug-related," he says. "The guys worked really hard to get Al into a rehabilitation program in California. They were hopeful that he would take whatever steps necessary to get himself together. But what happened with the arrest has every sign of someone who hadn't taken care of his problems. So it's unlikely that Al will be rejoining the band until he deals with these issues."

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